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Allegiance by Michael Springate

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Written as a sequel to The Beautiful West & The Beloved of God, Michael Springate’s newest novel is a brilliant examination of the nexus between Canada and its supposed values and the political repression of Egypt, both countries struggling in the shadow of the mighty American empire. A highly political novel, it is written with subtlety and insight, revealing a world that is both dangerous and seductive.

The plot revolves around the disappearance of Mahfouz, a young Arab man from Montreal who has travelled to Cairo. His girlfriend, Elena, a single mother from Manitoba now living in Montreal, enlists her father's help to find Mahfouz. The young man's own father has been imprisoned by the Canadian government on suspected, probably trumped-up, terrorism charges. Elena's father, Victor, dutifully goes to Cairo with nothing more than the name of a local lawyer. A car mechanic from small-town Manitoba, he's an unlikely candidate to find a missing person in a city of 22 million, where he doesn't speak the language or know the culture and, even less so, the politics.

The Cairo lawyer hired by Mahfouz's family refers Victor to a human rights NGO run by Perpetua, a Kenyan lawyer who works with political prisoners. Perpetua, seeing no hope of helping Victor find the missing Mahfouz, declines the assignment and his money, but reluctantly agrees to let Victor put up a poster of the missing young man on the office bulletin board. While staying in a very modest hotel, Victor is befriended by Hakim, a seemingly educated clerk who offers his assistance. Two other hotel guests join the search: Nikos, a Greek would-be politician, and his girlfriend, Oksanna, a Ukrainian actress and refugee. When Perpetua calls Victor to say she may have a lead, Victor and his new friends embark on a journey into the secrets of Mahfouz's life in Egypt and, ultimately, the location of his incarceration. Each member of the group is masterfully depicted, with backstories that intertwine both disappointment and cautious optimism. In this, Springate, a professional playwright, excels in the art of casting, and we as readers willingly observe from the stage curtains the universe he unfolds to us.

What Springate also does exceptionally well is to present a view of the exotic through the eyes of a simple, untraveled man who instinctively rebels against injustice but can only fight it by maintaining his integrity. Make no mistake, Springate's fiction is anything but simple. His flowing prose bursts with the rejection of an imperialist order in which vassal states like Egypt and Canada serve the imperial centre in Washington. But there are no rants in Allegiance. Instead, the author feeds us, in modest doses, the information we need to feel the rebellion within us. And our own allegiance as readers is challenged as we invest ourselves in the lives and oppression of the characters. Allegiance is a novel for the thinking and working woman and man.

Like The Beautiful West & The Beloved of God, Allegiance does not close the circle on its final page. Instead, it leaves us unsatiated, eager for a third novel to bring us closure, and perhaps also the redemption of its protagonists.

Allegiance is published by Guernica Editions.


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